The final five: Verstappen in the box seat for maiden title

The margin is only 12 points, but with three Red Bull Racing-friendly circuits scheduled for the next three weeks, Max Verstappen is within touching distance of a historic championship victory over Lewis Hamilton.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

The end of the unprecedently long 2021 Formula 1 season is in sight, and in just six weeks the winner of the titanic struggle between reigning champion Lewis Hamilton and challenger Max Verstappen will be declared.

After 17 rounds of waxing and waning fortunes the pair is split by just 12 points, and with a maximum of 130 still on offer, bottles of F1’s preferred brand of sparkling wine remain very much on ice.

But Max Verstappen can probably imagine how they’d taste.

Momentum is with the Dutchman in this final cross-continental jaunt to the flag. Not only does he hold a points buffer, but victory in the United States two weeks ago, at one of Hamilton’s favourite circuits and a Mercedes stronghold since 2014, was and important strike in this relentless battle.

But it wasn’t simply for the victory itself, undoubted though the morale boost was, nor for the points margin on the precipice of the final five races. It’s the springboard he’s given himself to make it to the finish.

The next three races are at Red Bull Racing circuits, none more so than this weekend’s Mexico City Grand Prix, which is shaping up as a crucial chapter in the title fight.

The Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez is one of Formula 1’s great outliers. Situated more than 2.2 kilometres above sea level, the air is around 22 per cent less dense, which wreaks havoc with car and engine performance relative to regular lower-lying circuits.

For one, despite the long straights, every team brings their biggest, most drag-ladened aerodynamics kits to scavenge as much downforce as they can from the scarce air. Yet always their task is in vain, with the cars producing only around as much downforce than they do in Monza, where the bodywork is designed to reduce drag as much as possible.

Despite being off championship pace since its last title in 2013, Red Bull Racing has always done well here because its design philosophy allows it to pile more downforce onto the car than most others. It’s why the team tends to perform well at street circuits too.

Mercedes, on the other hand, has often found Mexico to be a bogey race for the same reason. By virtue of being a good compromise design that performs strongly as most circuits, it struggles to answer the call for maximum downforce at an outlier like Mexico.

But there are other reasons Mercedes tends to underperform here too. The thinner atmosphere puts more stress on the turbocharger to maintain air pressure in the internal combustion engine. The turbo then runs hotter — but there’s less air at altitude to cool it down. Mercedes’s historically larger, harder-to-cool turbo is more performative at sea level but struggles to run as hard as required at Mexico City, leaving it down on power.

Consider too that Mercedes is battling engine unreliability, having taken an engine penalty in each of the four previous rounds to replace its troubled parts in both cars, and this weekend in Mexico presents a danger round for the reigning champion team and driver.

Following Mexico is then Brazil — also at high altitude, albeit less extreme — and then the unknown quantity of a new race in Qatar. Though neither sits as solidly in the Red Bull Racing column, both are in configurations that should suit Verstappen’s car’s preference of medium and high-speed corners.

Two victories from three could put Verstappen around 19 points up on Hamilton ahead of the final two rounds, which means Hamilton would have to lead two Mercedes one-two finishes in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi to ensure himself of the title.

This will be a crucial three weeks to the 2021 championship outcome.